“Do you know the terror of he who falls asleep? To the toes he is terrified, Because the ground gives the way under him, And the dream begins…” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche
“Welcome to prime time-“
Really? What year is this? Fine…
“Welcome to prime time, BITCH!” ~Freddy Krueger
90. A Nightmare on Elm Street
I do love an 80s horror campfest, but after Face/Off there’s only so many guilty pleasures I can put on this list. So I guess if I include horror movies they ought to have at least some degree of artistic merit. And (maybe to the surprise of people who only know of Freddy Krueger through cultural osmosis) A Nightmare on Elm Street actually has a fair bit. It’s served with a side of cheese, but that’s all the more fun.
Give Wes Craven credit for happening upon both an ingenious premise and an iconic villain right out of the gate. The idea of a nightmare that can actually kill you is primal, and Freddy’s name, appearance and mannerisms are as well known as any character from the last fifty years. And unlike The Shape from Halloween, the scariness of the original character isn’t diminished by a string of campy sequels either. Freddy’s particular brand of sadism is ripe for some campy fun, and the seeds of his future characterization are here, but in Movie #1 he’s a menacing, shadowy figure with sparse dialogue. He is terrifying, and his intended victims are easy to like.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is a lot of fun, but it’s a horror movie first and foremost, and quite a good one too. The dreamworlds and practical effects, though not on a level seen in the sequels, are really impressive, and there’s a real build to the movie. Every dream sequence is grander and scarier than the last, our lead heroine gets more isolated yet more resourceful, and the tension increases the sleepier the characters get.
Those last couple scenes are some bullllshit. But everything before that is great. Surprisingly great actually, considering the legacy of the overall series.
Appreciation (Construction): LOW. That last scene just undercuts everything that came before, turn the movie off with Freddy’s defeat and I’m much happier.
Affection (Emotional Impact): LOW. Nancy’s Dad almost comically under-reacts to some tragic moments and that does something to the death scenes.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): LOW. Freddy isn’t funny here, and the kids take the situation pretty seriously.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): MODERATE. Everybody dreams, everyone can put themselves into this situation.
Adrenaline (Excitement): MODERATE. When Freddy pops up we usually get some exciting chase scenes.
Awe (Visual Impact): HIGH. Boiler rooms and basements look pretty creepy onscreen.
Anxiety (Suspense): HIGH. Scary scary movie.
89. The Wages of Fear
I pitch The Wages of Fear to you, and it sounds like the perfect high concept thriller. A foursome of unemployed desperate men are promised a life changing amount of money. The job? Drive truckloads of unstable dynamite through the most winding, treacherous road in South America. Sounds great! And it is!
Too bad its the second half of the movie. Before that, The Wages of Fear establishes the HELL out of the four men, and the impoverished existence that makes the dangerous job ahead of them seem like a reasonable alternative. The story that comes later doesn’t nearly justify the length of time that’s spent teeing it up.
Maybe that’s just me though, and in any event, it doesn’t matter. The set-up is a distant memory by the time the credits are rolling. Once our characters hit the road, it’s an experience like few others. If the general concept of suspense manifested as a movie, it’d be The Wages of Fear. And it’s not one I’m willing to spoil either. If you’ve not seen this film, and you have enough tenacity to make it through the first hour, your reward is to not have all the intense and unexpected obstacles spoiled for you by some Internet dweeb. Best of luck!
Amusement (Humour/Elation): N/A
Appreciation (Construction): N/A
Applicability (Real World Resonance): MODERATE. It’s easy to relate to the lead’s desperation, again, to the point where I think the film goes needlessly overboard establishing it.
Adrenaline (Excitement): MODERATE. Some, but tension is what the bigger setpieces are going for.
Affection (Emotional Impact): MODERATE. Tends more towards shocks than emotion, but there are moments in which characters are allowed to feel their losses.
Awe (Visual Impact): MODERATE. Lots of well photographed mountain vistas.
Anxiety (Suspense): EXTRAORDINARY. Second half of the movie has enough tension for about three regular films.
88. Burden of Dreams
As a rule I’m not thinking too much about documentaries for this list, but Fitzcarraldo is one of very few movies where the onscreen story is eclipsed by its own Making Of. The fictional film deals with a lunatic who wants to drag a ship over a hill while dealing with government bureaucracy, harsh natural elements, and an Amazonian tribal war. Burden of Dreams? Same exact story, except Werner Herzog is in it and he’s talking about how birds are screeching in pain when they sing. No matter what fictional event we see onscreen in a Werner Herzog film, it’s not as compelling as the idea that the man himself is standing just off camera orchestrating it. Burden of Dreams understands that, widening the frame just enough to get director into view.
Herzog may be one of the most legendary people working in film today, and he’s spent the years accruing stories that seem made up until you find out there’s video evidence. Don’t believe that someone shot him mid-interview and his only reaction was to look around and murmur “Vot vas that?” There’s a clip. And with Burden of Dreams, here’s a chance to experience Fitzcarraldo again, now with Herzog as the main character. Herzog tries and fails to move his giant ship through the jungle, Herzog is onboard when the ship careens through rapids, Herzog tries to find the resources he needs to make his dream happen, Herzog contends with nature. Boy does that man contend with nature. Anyone who has a passing fascination with Werner Herzog has seen the clip of him vilifying nature, and it originates here.
If there’s one downside, his legendarily contentious relationship with lead actor/madman Klaus Kinski is under-represented in Burden of Dreams. We get a few talking head interviews that clearly depict a man long past the point of stability, but it seems the choice was made to hold back a lot of footage for a future documentary about Herzog and Kinski. The best possible version of Burden of Dreams is probably one that splices in some footage from My Best Fiend, but that quibble aside you will not find a documentary that amplifies and enhances its companion film quite like this.
Anxiety (Suspense): N/A
Awe (Visual Impact): LOW. A lot of the same visuals as Fitzcarraldo, but shot in a more fly-on-the-wall way.
Affection (Emotional Impact): LOW. “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that.”
Adrenaline (Excitement): MODERATE. Even more exciting to see the rapids scene in the documentary knowing that it’s all real.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that.”
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. Hours and hours of footage edited down into a compelling documentary.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. “If I abandon this project, I would be a man without dreams and I don’t want to live like that.”
87. Forrest Gump
Are you ready to look at the Forrest through the trees?
I don’t know what that means either.
It’s a bit weird to revisit a film that in and of itself has become a cliche. You turn it on, there’s the feather, there’s Tom Hanks sitting at a bus stop and speaking in that Forrest drawl, there’s that “Life is like a box of chocolates” line right up front. You saw so many amateur Forrests running around on TV and in life, so it’s weird to see the O.G. Gump. But that’s something I have to divorce from the movie itself. Besides, he was endlessly imitated because he’s a really pleasant character to spend a couple hours with.
I love Forrest Gump as much as ever I have, but as an adult I love it for different reasons. The magical realism of the story used to be what defined the film for me, it was a breezy trip through recent American history with a darkly funny undertone Forrest couldn’t see but we could. Nowadays, the darkness is all that’s there for me. When you’re young, you love people like Jenny and Lieutenant Dan unconditionally as Forrest loves them unconditionally. Later in life you see how they use and discard Forrest when it’s convenient for them. Later still you have more empathy for those characters as you understand what made them spiral. And then you see how unlike Jenny and Dan, Forrest is able to excel in the face of adversity because of (not in spite of) his lack of intelligence. Is that the takeaway? The only way to get through life unscathed is to not understand it? Is that even the intent of the filmmakers?
Regardless of whether you think the film is pure nihilism in an optimistic package (or the other way around), Forrest Gump is as funny and as resonant an experience as it’s ever been.
Anxiety (Suspense): LOW. There’s something about opening on a man telling you his life story that makes you think he’ll probably survive.
Adrenaline (Excitement): LOW. The Vietnam war is the one “action scene” in the movie but it’s really well done.
Awe (Visual Impact): MODERATE. It’s a nice southern USA travelogue.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. Though I do kind of project my own worldview into the movie.
Appreciation (Construction): HIGH. Script is polished and multilayered.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. Very funny all the way through.
Affection (Emotional Impact): HIGH. Many losses for Forrest all the way throughout the story and those are the moments that aren’t undercut with humor.
86. When Harry Met Sally…
Rob Reiner’s career trajectory used to fascinate me. How is it that his first decade as a filmmaker was comprised entirely of very good-to-great motion pictures, followed by an infamous plummet to North that he’s never really pulled himself out of? It’s only recently I figured it out, Reiner doesn’t really have his own distinct voice, but he’s an excellent conduit to collaborators who have more of a style than him.
But I’m not slagging on Reiner. Working through him, a lot of people did their best work. This is Spinal Tap was more like the first and by far the best of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries. Aaron Sorkin’s script for A Few Good Men made it to the screen with more creative success than anything he would ever write again barring a few amazing West Wing episodes. Misery succeeds as a straightforward adaptation of one of Stephen King’s books, and how often do you get to say that? And now, When Harry Met Sally is the best movie Nora Ephron has ever been involved in. Rob Reiner is like that guy in Heroes who was always hanging out with Hiro and was able to amplify the power of any superhuman who came in contact with him. And he was my favourite character! Even though I can’t remember his name.
My point is, When Harry Met Sally is one of the most likeable movies ever made. There’s a bit of thematic heft as the film deals with love, loss, aging, and the infamous proclamation that men and women can’t be friends because sex gets in the way. You’re not going to find an answer to that question here (considering Harry and Sally were smitten all along), but it’s a nice framework to base a story around. Basically the movie gets Billy Crystal at his most likeable, Meg Ryan at her most appealing, and lets them hang out for 90 minutes. It’s so much fun to see them play off each other, and you root for them to get together, no matter where you come down on When Harry Met Sally’s central thesis.
Adrenaline (Excitement): N/A
Anxiety (Suspense): N/A
Awe (Visual Impact): N/A
Appreciation (Construction): MODERATE. Love the story for it’s simplicity, no unnecessary complications or obstacles, just following two characters as their relationship goes through some twists and turns.
Applicability (Real World Resonance): HIGH. Film’s central question may or may not give you a lot to think about.
Affection (Emotional Impact): HIGH. You get to like Harry and Sally and you do feel it when their relationship is in trouble.
Amusement (Humour/Elation): HIGH. It’s a sweet film, but more important, it’s really amusing.